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Christopher Maltman: Truly, truly, truly a Masterpiece.

Christopher Maltman (Photo [excerpt] © Pia Clodi)

Monday, April 7th, Christopher Maltman took a couple minutes just hours before his recital at the Mozart-Saal to chat about the great, elusive, «Notturno» by Othmar Schoeck:

 Monday, April 7th, Christopher Maltman took a couple minutes just hours before his recital at the Mozart-Saal to chat about the great, elusive, «Notturno» by Othmar Schoeck:

How do you know the Schoeck «Notturno»?

jfl:   I know it from Klaus Mertens’ recording which was one of the... well, it wasn’t the first recording. The first one, I think, was Fischer-Dieskau with the Cherubini Quartet, and I’m not sure if it ever made it unto CD. [It had, actually, and copies are hard, but not impossible, to find. Edit: Twitter informed us that the first recording was F-D with the Juilliard Quartet, actually, and that recording has never made it onto CD.]

So it was it recorded for vinyl and was never digitally mastered or came back out again? I looked for it, because I was certain that Fischer-Dieskau would have recorded it. But I couldn’t find it anywhere and then I looked on some websites and godknowswhat and I saw that he had recorded it but couldn’t find a copy to listen to. Which is a bit sad.

But there is of course the Mertens recording, a gorgeous new one with Stephan Genz and the Leipziger Streichquartett and the Gerhaher recording...

That’s the one I listened to, actually. Which is beautiful.

It’s great... except the Rosamunde Quartet lets him down a bit.But it was him that I first talked about the «Notturno» with at length, well before he knew he’d get a chance of recording it...

Yes, it’s not easy to do the piece. It was only when this opportunity at the Konzerthaus was presented to me, where they as much as said: “Look, what would you like to do.” And I said: “I would like to do the Schoeck «Notturno».” And they looked at me and said: “OK – what’s that?” So I said: “Well, it’s a fantastic song cycle for low voice and string quartet.” But fortunately they gave me sort of carte blanche to decide what I wanted to do. And it’s so hard to get opportunities like that. It’s so hard to get concerts like this. They come up, for me, once every two or three years. And I really am so pleased that I had got the opportunity to do this piece. Because the more I worked on it and the more looked at it and the more I got inside it, I think it’s absolutely Schoeck’s best composition. It’s a towering piece of music.

[The backstage dummy alarm rings]
Oh my Lord, what noise is that?

[The backstage alarm voice says soothingly: “Windstille. Windstille”, which suggests that no one will burn, after all.]

Certainly the piece that’s furthest removed from the relatively conservative tonal language that Schoeck usually delves in...

Exactly. the pieces for baritone and string orchestra… what are they called?

«Elegie». Yes, completely. And whereas that, as the songs, is much more – I would say: Strauss-inspired, this is very much more Berg... Schoenberg... and much more forward-looking and a much more experimental piece.

Well, at the time it wasn’t particularly forward looking...

No, no. But for him. But for Schoeck it was.

On paper «Notturno» is an atonal piece, but really, it’s romantic... I love to dig out the comparison of this to Berg
Opus 1, the Piano Sonata. When you just play the notes, it sounds like modern pling-plang. When you let it breathe, when you just wait long enough, eventually the notes will come and it attains this wistful, late-romantic Viennese coffee house air… And that’s a bit with the Schoeck, too, I think. Ultimately it’s a romantic piece.

Oh, absolutely. And it’s hard... the closing section of it which completely and utterly sort of Hollywood and tonal and gorgeous and harmonic. But then the third movement is very bleak and hard and strange and tonally quite challenging. Quite challenging for everybody, actually. But nevertheless, Joe Middleton
[the pianist for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Five mystical songs, not on duty in the Schoeck] sat in. I said: “Well, look... would you mind? I know you want to get off”, because he was obviously very tired, “but would you mind just simply sitting in for the first movement.” Of course [Maltman chuckles] the first movement is like 17 minutes long... “But would you mind sitting in so that we can have an idea of balance and everything?” And I said: “Look... you don’t have to stay. I know how tired you are.” And after the first movement I asked him: how is it. He said: “The balance is great, it’s working very well.” And I thanked him and told please not to think that he had to stay. But he went: “No, no, no, no... I really want to!” And at the end he said: “Gosh, it’s an amazing piece!” And he was expecting it to be much more difficult to listen to. Much more difficult as an audience member. But he really enjoyed it, first time he heard it.

Well, I think it is difficult for a lot of people and that it’s fair to say that.


I’ve seen people walk out in the middle of a good performance, actually, and not inconspicuously between songs either, but right in the middle, creaking on the wooden floor, every step of the way. Quite sad. Six, seven of them.

Really? Wow!

I don’t know how it might have been, if the Rosamunde Quartet had pulled a bit more of its weight... but they were on their way out and you could hear it. And indeed, shortly thereafter they disassembled. But that brings me to a point, namely that the idea of «Notturno» being a romantic piece is very much tied to the work of the string quartet. That it’s in good part their job to keep those long lines, suspended...

Yes, absolutely. And I absolutely love it. But from a sort of poetry point of view, as well... the poems of the [Nikolaus] Lenau poems, for one: The second movement is very much more descriptive than the first, for example. But there is one of the four poems in the first movement that is very straight forward and descriptive. And the rest of it is very much sort of impressionistic. It almost reminds me of French poetry. It’s not what you would consider to be empirical German poetry. It’s very much sweeps of color and mood... and then a sort of slightly enigmatic statement at the end. And very much less "I feel this and I want to do that and I need to go there and I need to do this". The whole piece, I think, without a very clear vision of it should be and without a very clear vision of the things sort-of top to tail... I mean: You can get slightly lost in these, as you say, incredibly long meandering lines that the piece has. But I absolutely love it. Love it. I think it is great.

And I am going to try my hardest to get us another concert to do it. Hopefully Wigmore will take it. Because it has huge similarities as well to... there’s a Finzi cycle called «By Footpath and Stile» – again, string quartet and baritone. It’s settings of [Thomas] Hardy. It’s not as long as this. It’s probably around 26, 27 minutes or so. But there are moments… It was written in the late teens... 1917, 1918 something like that. It certainly wasn’t into the twenties. But there are sections in [the «Notturno»] that I am convinced that Schoeck must have heard the Finzi. Absolutely convinced of it.

I love Finzi, but that work I’ve never even heard of that work.

Well, yes – it’s never done.

Is there a recording out?

Yes, there is. With Roderick Williams, on Naxos. It’s a beautiful piece, but again it’s slightly problematic, because the Hardy is extremely dark and extremely... in the same way as this is, really.

The «Notturno» really goes to the threshold of pain...

Totally. Totally. And he cycles basically between love and death all the way through – well, mostly death [he laughs]. But the same as Hardy, Schoeck has to go elsewhere. Away from the Lenau, and he finds it in that last [Gottfried] Keller poem, which points to hope. And in the Finzi, Hardy also still has this... hmmm... there is still this thread of hope within him. There is still this slightly kind of positive thought going around his head. There is a poem that is in «By Footpath and Stile» that goes something like this…

available at Amazon
Stephan Genz, Leipziger Streichquartett

DE | US | UK | FR

available at Amazon
Christian Gerhaher, Rosamunde Quartet

DE | US | UK | FR

available at Amazon
G.Finzi,By Footpath & Stile et al.
Roderick Williams, Iain Burnside

DE | US | UK | FR

Maltman recites "The Oxen", one of the six poems of the cycle, from memory:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.

"Now they are all on their knees,"

An elder said as we sat in a flock

By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures

As they dwelt in their strawy pen,

Nor did it occur to one of us there

To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave

In these years! Yet I feel,

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

"Come; see the oxen kneel,

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,"

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so

Hardy is so full of this doubt, darkness, and despair for the world. Yet he still has this silver thread of childlike hopefulness within him that sustains him through everything. And I feel that that Keller-poem is the golden thread at the end for Schoeck. Again, it’s child-like, just gazing up at the stars saying: I hope that when I go I am just going to be one of them and that I will drift off through the galaxy and that will be lovely, thank you very much. After, you know, everything winding down and drawing to a close – and it is exactly the same in the Hardy. There is this one huge poem which is all about how he wanders through a graveyard and he looks at the trees and the bushes and the plants. And he wonders which person which tree has fed off. Whose juices made what tree... So the Oak was old Squire Audeley Grey and this creeping vine was a beautiful lady and all of this kind of stuff. And again the transformation of nature into death or the coming of winter and all of these thoughts also appear in the Lenau.

Musically, another thing that «Notturno» reminds me of is Schoenberg’s «Hanging Gardens».

I don’t know it, actually.

There’s a sense of suspense and fragility and bleakness in that, also with the Stefan George text, that I also find in the «Notturno». The Belcea Quartet thought it might be a nice evening to do the «Notturno» and then the Hanging Gardens and maybe, if they have a soprano join them, the Berg Lyric Suite.

Oh yeah, of course. Gosh, that would be... that would be a tough sell for everybody, as well. [He laughs as he rolls the idea round in his head, moving from excitement to amusement at the audacity of the idea.] But going back to the «Notturno»: You are right, it’s another world, especially from «Elegie», which I have never performed, but I have heard and I have listened to recordings of.

They might be pocket-size Strauss... not the «Four Last Songs», exactly, but still wonderful music. If he had written it 50 years earlier, he would have gotten all the credit he was due.

But that’s the point, though, isn’t it? It’s slightly derivative, at that stage.

Well, I’m not sure I would call it derivative… I certainly don’t feel in the position to do so, with that work. I know, yes, there are composers who have composed in a general style like that before. But there are composers that have composed things, say, five years after Strauss, probably much more derivative, literally and listening-wise, than Schoeck. He could have still have been – and I think he was – perfectly original within that language. And it still sounds original enough for me to listen to.

Yes. Absolutely. I didn’t mean that to be disparaging of Schoeck. Just meaning that he was slightly dialing into a sound world that was already there.

It certainly explains the neglect at the time: Too conservative for the avant-garde and too modern for the conservatives. Stuck between these worlds...

Completely. But if you look later, it’s interesting that that’s sort of where Britten was, in terms of being a composer. The avant-garde composers of the day just thought he was disgustingly old fashioned.

And Britten would not have had the same career if he had not composed in the Anglophone world, which strikes me as having been more tolerant of that ‘deviation’.

Probably not, yes.

In a way Britten didn’t truly arrive in continental Europe as a regularly played, taken-as-serious composer until a decade or two ago. Jean-Guihen Queyras, the cellist, was with IRCAM, the Institut de Recherche-something-something... Pierre Boulez’ outfit. So he was among the hard core of avant-gardists. And when Harmonia Mundi asked him to do his first recording, he elected to do the Britten Cello Suites. And he said that at the time, that was the single most offensive thing that he could possibly record [Maltman starts a credescendo-ing laugh] to upset everyone in his circuit. For a Frenchman, a modern music maven, to record this rubbish. Which of course we know now as great music.

Yes, and speaking of great music: This is truly, truly, truly [he stabs the score of «Notturno» with his finger, repeatedly] truly, truly a real masterpiece. I think it is an absolute masterpiece. I think it is an absolutely brilliant piece and the more I get into it, the more I get into it, the more I want to sing it.



PhillyFan said...

Notturno is a wonderful piece of music, but this interview with Maltman is wrong about the first recording of this work. Fischer-Dieskau recorded it in 1968 with the Juilliard Quartet, and that was the first recording. It was released on Columbia, paired with Barber’s, Dover Beach. Also, I think that that Lebendig begraben, Op. 26 which was written 7 years prior to Notturno, is a more “experimental” vocal work than the latter piece.

PhillyFan said...

Oops! Wrong opus no. for Lebendig begraben. It was Op. 40, written in 1926.

jfl said...

You are absolutely right about me having been wrong... this has been noted and corrected in the interview on the KonzerthausMagazin site.

I haven't heard "Lebendig begraben" by anyone but Dieskau -- and he gets so many notes wrong that I'm not sure whether it's him or the piece that makes it sound "experimental". :-)

Cheers to a fellow Schoeck-head!